According to Italian researchers, horses enter a positive emotional state when they see or interact with a human that has built a good relationship with them.
There is no secret that people have been developing bonding relationships with horses throughout history. Our list of the most famous horses from history reflects a connection between rider and horse. However, how can we bond with horses?
A new study by Italian researchers has shed some light on the matter. Horses develop positive emotional experiences when they see a familiar face. In a way, we could say they become more relaxed around a human they interact with frequently.
Chiara Scopa, PhD at the National Reference Centre for Animal Assisted Interventions adds this positive feeling increases when the person brushes the horse. Horses have lower heart rates around people they feel comfortable around.
“By defining a familiar human as someone whom animals have had multiple occasions to interact with and establish a relationship of a positive emotional valence, we can positively affirm that horses are able to develop a bond with them,” commented Scopa.
Grooming a horse daily allows riders to check on the horse’s health and well-being. This improves the health of their skin and coat.
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Researchers observed 23 mixed-breed horses in leisure riding stables as both familiar and unfamiliar humans approached them. The scientists analysed the heart rate and heart rate variability (HRV) of the horses as they stood in the stall and as a human took a soft brush and groomed them.
They found out that horses had lower heart rates when they were groomed, regardless of who it was. However, HRV rates were very different when they interacted with familiar humans or with unfamiliar faces.
Co-author, Laura Contalbrigo, DVM, PhD said “These complex additional analyses on the sympathovagal correlate revealed a modulation of the cardiovascular neural regulation related to the level of the handler familiarity.” In other words, they were able to verify that horses show different reactions when they are with a familiar human or not.
The horse-human relationship is complex and depends on the past relationship with the horse and the current interactions. For instance, horses developed a much more positive emotional state when familiar humans brushed them on either side. However, with unfamiliar humans, they only showed these emotions when being brushed on the left side.
“We believe that the idea that horses’ behaviours and emotional states are just tuned to simple cause-effect reactions should be broadened and explored further.” Horses are complex animals and their emotions are affected by more factors than simply recognizing a human.